My friend Mary, and our oh, so, fragile lives

  • Business
  • Saturday, 08 Mar 2003



AS I write, I grieve with tear-swollen eyes. One of my closest friends, Mary Thanabalan (nee Mary Goh) died “yesterday” morning (Feb 27) after failing to recover from brain surgery to remove a tumour, which had maliciously wrapped itself around her brain stem. I have had many bouts of sobbing, and I am not finished. But Mary would have been the first to insist that commitments must be met. So I write. 

One of the most advanced interview techniques used by planners is the “if-you-were-to-die-tomorrow-what-would-you-want-to-have-accomplished?” test.  

Long ago, I came across a similar mental exercise in Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It boils down to imagining that you attend your own funeral service, and that you can personally craft the eulogies you hope to hear from four individuals.  

To quote Covey: “The first is from your family, immediate and also extended ... who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organisation where you have been involved in service.”  

This exercise is easy to describe, but difficult to complete. It requires awesome focus and commitment to put deep thoughts down on paper. If done correctly, this exercise allows you to touch your deepest fundamental values.  

For instance, let’s say you are a father, and you mentally picked a son or daughter to deliver the first “funeral speech”. You might then imagine your child saying, “My father sacrificed a lot to give me an education ... “  

Any listening financial planner worth his salt will then be able to pick up on educating children as a top priority, and not because that’s what textbooks say but because it is of fundamental importance to the client.  

While many planning solutions will require investment portfolio construction, the greatest difference between financial planning and investment planning is the focus. Financial planning focuses on the person: investment planning on the market. 

In the mid-90s, I worked as an equities analyst. Understanding the mechanics of stock valuation – psychological, technical and fundamental – was a prerequisite of the job. Yet, today I am more fulfilled because I am involved in the financial planning process that puts me in front of living, fragile human beings. 

My friend Mary died young – well short of 50. But if I could guide just some of my clients to live their lives even half as well as she lived her too brief one, I will have achieved deep, satisfying fulfilment. 

I urge you to attempt Covey’s exercise. To my knowledge, Mary never got the chance to do so. But in her case, she hit the bull’s eye without even trying! She and her husband Thana built a viable business in what has been recognised by the Negeri Sembilan state government as Seremban’s cleanest restaurant, Curry Leaf. It is so much more, as well, acting often as a focal point of small-town interaction over great meals! 

Think of what you might like Covey’s second speaker – a friend – to say when you are gone, as you read this excerpt of my eulogy to Mary: 

If you look up at a clear sky long after sunset, you will always see steadily pulsing lights – those would be the fixed stars. But occasionally you will also catch a brief glimpse of a streak of light that is as intense as it is short-lived. That would be a meteorite burning up in the atmosphere, a glorious streak of fiery beauty that lasts only a few seconds. But, oh, what a wonderful few seconds they are! We call this phenomenon a shooting star. 

Ironically, my friend Mary's life resembled both a shooting star and a fixed star. 

Her life wasn't long. Just 47 years. And I only knew her for perhaps three or four of those years. But in that short time, she lit up my life like an incandescent flare that completely overwhelmed the blackness with the white light of her life, her love, her joy, and her sheer generosity. 

Even though she is gone now, the legacy of what she stood for will last a long, long time.  

The entire town of Seremban, it seems, knew her. Many of us counted her among our closest ? among our best friends. And the remarkable thing is we did so because very often she first reached out to us. Then, almost magically, she made us feel good about ourselves. She made us feel special simply because she wanted to know us better. 

All the fine-tuning in the world of money dynamics is pointless if you do not improve the lives of those you care for. So, next week we will consider characteristics – both of plans and of people – that elevate the chances of leaving a legacy at least approaching a fraction of the depth and quality of Mary’s. 


l Rajen Devadason is a certified financial planner and CEO of financial planning firm RD WealthCreation Sdn Bhd, which specialises in retirement planning for 30- to 45-year-olds. He invites feedback at 

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